After all the backstage upheavals, with show doctors coming and going and dire predictions emanating from the gossip columns, the basic problem with
Lennon turns out to be its title. If its creators had simply named the show John and Yoko, not only would we in the audience have understood what it was meant to be about, but they would have had a guideline for bringing their efforts into sharper focus.
As a documentary account of John Lennon’s life, the show is barely complete enough to be called perfunctory. As a celebration of his songwriting output, it badly shortchanges the Beatles era, presumably owing to copyright restrictions. You will not find out from the show that John Lennon ever appeared in a movie or published a book, and you will only get the vaguest sense, the evening being close to contextless, that he was a formative influence on a time of great cultural as well as political upheaval.
At the same time, the show has a lot of good points, starting with its first-rate cast, and it has a strong subterranean reason for existing: Unlike most showbiz romances, the story of Lennon’s stormy relations with Yoko Ono—who gets a “special thanks” line in the show’s program, just below the author credits—actually has narrative substance, complete with internal conflict, the U.S. government as an outside antagonist, and a tragic death for a finish. Illuminating this story with Lennon’s post-Beatles songs, which have a quality very different from that of his collaborative works, was a fresh idea. Followed through consistently and freshly, it might have made Lennon an event of distinction in its own right, rather than a spottily entertaining evening that has many moving moments (yeah, I got all teary when they sang “Imagine”) but still feels like it has pieces missing—though you may not notice their absence, with people like Chuck Cooper, Marcy Harriell, and Julia Murney to create high spots.